Elseworlds Batman volume 2

By Doug Moench, Kelley Jones, John Beatty & Malcolm Jones III (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6982-1

During the 1990s DC regrouped and rebranded its frequent dalliances with alternate reality scenarios under the copious and broad umbrella of a separate imprint. The Elseworlds banner and credo declared that heroes would be taken out of their usual settings and put into strange places and times – some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or Shouldn’t exist…

Here a recent reissue (originally released in 2007 as Batman Vampire – Tales of the Multiverse) and now available in paperback and eBook editions collects a trilogy of unlikely Batman stories that began with a literary cross-pollination of the type publishers seem so in love with.

Crafted by Doug Moench, Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III, Batman and Dracula: Red Rain was and remains is a genuinely creepy adventure of heroism and sacrifice. Here the Lord of Vampires moves into Gotham City and turns the city into a hellscape unimaginable to behold.

Desperate to save his home, the Dark Knight is forced to ally himself with “good vampires” in an attempt to stop Dracula. It can’t be a spoiler to reveal that he also has to sacrifice his life and his humanity before the threat to his beloved city is ended…

This tale was a great success when it was first released in 1991; a minor gothic masterpiece, both philosophical and tension drenched, with the sleek, glossily distorted artwork of Jones & Jones III creating a powerful aura of foredoomed predestination. It alone is well worth the price of admission.

And that is a very good thing because the two sequels are a possibly unnecessary indulgence.

Batman: Bloodstorm (1994, with the somehow more visually hygienic John Beatty replacing Malcolm Jones III as inker) sees a devasted-but-still-hanging-on Gotham protected by a vampiric Batman.

The Dark Nosferatu now combines his crime-fighting mission with dispatching those bloodsuckers who escaped the cataclysmic events of Red Rain. Tragically, he is a tortured hero suffering the agonies of the damned, struggling perpetually with his unholy thirst, but is determined nonetheless never to drink human blood.

However, when the Joker assumes command of the remaining vampire packs and attempts to take control of Gotham, not even the hero’s greatest friends and a lycanthropic Cat-Woman can forestall Batman’s final fate…

And yet Batman’s eternal rest is thwarted and stolen from him after the heartsick Alfred Pennyworth and desperate Commissioner Jim Gordon recall the Batman from his tomb in Batman: Crimson Mist.

Moench, Jones & Beatty recount a bleak but predictable saga (originally released in 1999) of a beleaguered metropolis overrun by super-criminals since the caped Crusader went to his reward.

So, when his faithful manservant brings him back, the faithful retainer is horrified to find the now corrupted hero is just another malevolent, blood-hungry beast. One who plans to save Gotham by slaughtering every criminal still breathing in it…

Only a bizarre alliance of good men and monstrous villains can rectify this situation before humanity itself pays the awful price…

These stories take the concept of Batman as scary beast to logical extremes – and far beyond – but although well drawn and thoughtfully written, the sequels lack the depth and intensity of the initial tale and feel too much like most sequels – just an attempt to make some more money.

If you’re a superhero fan at least in this volume you have the real deal, so buy it and just treat the last two thirds as bonus material. If you’re a sucker for stylish bloodbaths and dramatic scarlet-drenched suspense, however, there’s plenty here for you to wade through and wallow in…
© 1991, 1994, 1999, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Doom Patrol: The Silver Age volume 1

By Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, Bruno Premiani, Bob Brown & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8111-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Weird Science Fun… 8/10

1963 was the year when cautious comicbook publishers finally realised that superheroes were back in a big way and began reviving or creating a host of costumed characters to battle outrageous menaces and dastardly villains.

Thus it was that the powers-that-be at National Comics decided that venerable anthology-mystery title My Greatest Adventure would dip its toe in the waters with a radical take on the fad. Still, famed for cautious publishing, they introduced a startling squad of champions with their thematic roots still firmly planted in the B-movie monster films of the era that subtly informed the parent comic.

No traditional team of masked adventurers, this cast comprised a robot, a mummy and an occasional 50-foot woman, who joined forces with and were guided by a vivid, brusque, domineering, crippled mad scientist to fight injustice in a whole new way…

Covering June 1963 to May 1965, this stunning trade paperback – and eBook – compilation collects the Fabulous Freaks’ earliest exploits from My Greatest Adventure #80-85 and thereafter, issues #86-95 of the renamed title once overwhelming reader response compelled editor Murray Boltinoff to change it to the Doom Patrol.

The dramas were especially enhanced by the drawing skills of Italian cartoonist and classicist artist Giordano Bruno Premiani, whose highly detailed, subtly humanistic illustration made even the strangest situation dauntingly authentic and grittily believable. The premier tale ‘The Doom Patrol’ was co-scripted by Arnold Drake and Bob Haney, and saw a mysterious wheelchair-bound scientist summon three outcasts to his home through the promise of changing their miserable lives forever…

Competitive car racer Cliff Steele had died in a horrific pile up, but his undamaged brain had been transplanted into a fantastic mechanical body. Test pilot Larry Trainor had been trapped in an experimental stratospheric plane and become permanently radioactive, with the dubious benefit of gaining a semi-sentient energy avatar which could escape his body to perform incredible stunts for up to a minute at a time.

To pass safely amongst men Trainor had to constantly wrap himself in special radiation-proof bandages.

Ex-movie star Rita Farr had been exposed to mysterious gases which gave her the terrifying, unpredictable and, at first, uncontrolled ability to shrink or grow to incredible sizes.

The outcasts were brought together by brilliant but enigmatic Renaissance Man The Chief, who sought to mould the solitary misfits into a force for good. He quickly proved his point when a mad bomber attempted to blow up the city docks. The surly savant directed the trio of strangers in defusing it and no sooner had the misfits realised their true worth than they were on their first mission…

In second chapter ‘The Challenge of the Timeless Commander’, an incredibly ancient despot tried to seize a fallen alien ship, intent on turning its extraterrestrial secrets into weapons of world conquest, culminating in ‘The Deadly Duel with General Immortus’ which saw the Doom Patrol dedicate their lives to saving humanity from all threats.

My Greatest Adventure #81 featured ‘The Nightmare Maker’, combining everyday disaster response – saving a damaged submarine – with a nationwide plague of monsters. Stuck at base, The Chief monitors missions by means of a TV camera attached to Robotman’s chest, and quickly deduces the uncanny secret of the beasts and their war criminal creator Josef Kreutz

Solely scripted by Drake, a devious espionage ploy outed the Chief – or at least his image, if not name – in #82’s ‘Three Against the Earth!’, leading the team to believe Rita a traitor. When the cabal of millionaires actually behind the scheme are exposed as an alien advance guard who assumed the wheelchair-bound leader to be a rival invader, the inevitable showdown nearly costs Cliff what remains of his life…

In #83, ‘The Night Negative Man Went Berserk!’ spotlights the living mummy as a radio astronomy experiment interrupts the Negative Man’s return to Larry Trainor’s body, pitching the pilot into a coma and sending the ebony energy creature on a global spree of destruction. Calamity piles upon calamity when crooks steal the military equipment constructed to destroy the radio-energy creature and only desperate improvisation by Cliff and Rita allows avatar and host to reunite…

Issue #84 saw ‘The Return of General Immortus’ as ancient Babylonian artefacts lead the squad to the eternal malefactor, only to have the wily warrior turn the tables and take control of Robotman. Even though his comrades soon save him, Immortus escapes with the greatest treasures of all time…

My Greatest Adventure #85 was the last issue and featured ‘The Furies from 4,000 Miles Below’: monstrous subterranean horrors fuelled by nuclear forces. Despite having tricked Elasti-Girl into resuming her Hollywood career, the paternalistic heroes are pretty grateful when she turns up to save them all from radioactive incineration…

An unqualified success, the comicbook transformed seamlessly into The Doom Patrol with #86 and celebrated by introducing ‘The Brotherhood of Evil’: an assemblage of international super-criminals and terrorists led by French genius-in-a-jar The Brain. He was backed up by his greatest creation, a super-intelligent talking gorilla dubbed Monsieur Mallah.

The diametrically opposed teams first cross swords after brotherhood applicant Mr. Morden steals Rog, a giant robot the Chief intended for the US military…

DP #87 revealed ‘The Terrible Secret of Negative Man’ after Brotherhood femme fatale Madame Rouge attempts to seduce Larry. When the Brain’s unstoppable mechanical army invades the city, Trainor is forced to remove his bandages and allow his lethal radiations to disrupt their transmissions…

An occasional series of short solo adventures kicked off in this issue with ‘Robotman Fights Alone’. Here Cliff is dispatched to a Pacific island in search of an escaped killer, only to walk into a devastating series of WWII Japanese booby-traps…

All the mysteries surrounding the team’s leader are finally revealed in issue #88 with ‘The Incredible Origin of the Chief’: a blistering drama telling how brilliant but impoverished student Niles Caulder suddenly received unlimited funding from an anonymous patron interested in his researches on extending life.

Curiosity drove Caulder to track down his benefactor and he was horrified to discover the money came from the head of a criminal syndicate who claimed to be eons old…

Immortus had long ago consumed a potion which extended his life and wanted the student to recreate it since the years were finally catching up. To insure Caulder’s full cooperation, the General had a bomb inserted in the researcher’s chest and powered by his heartbeat …

After building a robot surgeon, Caulder tricked Immortus into shooting him, determined to thwart the monster at all costs. Once clinically dead, his Ra-2 doctor-bot removed the now-inert explosive and revived the bold scientist, but tragically the trusty mechanoid had been too slow and Caulder lost the use of his legs forever…

Undaunted, ‘The Man Who Lived Twice’ then destroyed all his research and went into hiding for years, with Immortus utterly unaware that Caulder had actually succeeded in the task which had stymied history’s greatest doctors and biologists…

Now, under the alias of super-thief The Baron, Immortus captures the Doom Patrol and demands a final confrontation with the Chief. Luckily the wheelchair-locked inventor is not only a biologist and robotics genius but also rather adept at constructing concealed weapons…

In #89 the team tackle a duplicitous scientist who devises a means to transform himself into ‘The Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Menace’ before ‘The Private War of Elasti-Girl’ finds the Maid of Many Sizes using unsuspected detective skills to track down a missing soldier and reunite him with his adopted son.

‘The Enemy within the Doom Patrol’ sees shape-shifting Madame Rouge infiltrate the team and almost turn them against each other whilst issue #91 introduces multi-millionaire Steve Dayton.

Used to getting whatever he wants, he creates a superhero persona solely to woo and wed Rita Farr. With such ambiguous motivations ‘Mento – the Man who Split the Doom Patrol’ was a radical character for the times, but at least his psycho-kinetic helmet proved a big help in defeating the plastic robots of grotesque alien invader Garguax

DP #92 tasks the team with a temporal terrorist in ‘The Sinister Secret of Dr. Tyme’ and features the abrasive Mento again saving the day, after which ‘Showdown on Nightmare Road’ in #93 features The Brain’s latest monstrous scheme. This results in the evil genius being transplanted inside Robotman’s skull whilst poor Cliff is dumped into a horrific beast, until the Chief out-plays the French Fiend at his own game…

Creature-feature veteran Bob Brown stepped in to illustrate #94’s lead tale ‘The Nightmare Fighters’ as an eastern mystic’s uncanny abilities are swiftly debunked by solid American science. Premiani returned to render back-up solo-feature ‘The Chief “Stands” Alone’ wherein Caulder eschews his deputies’ aid to bring down bird-themed villain The Claw with a mixture of wit, nerve and weaponised wheelchair.

This initial outing concludes with The Chief’s disastrous effort to cure Rita and Larry (DP #95); resulting in switched powers and the ‘Menace of the Turnabout Heroes’, so naturally that would be the very moment the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man would pick for a return bout…

Although as kids we all happily suspended disbelief and bought into the fanciful antics of the myriad masked heroes available, somehow the exploits of the Doom Patrol – and their surprisingly synchronistic Marvel counterparts The X-Men (freaks and outcasts, wheelchair geniuses, both debuting in the summer of 1963) – always seemed just a bit more “real” than the usual caped and costumed crowd.

With the edge of time and experience on my side it’s obvious just how incredibly mature and hardcore Drake, Haney & Premiani’s take on superheroes actually was. These superbly engaging, frantically fun and breathtakingly beautiful tales should rightfully rank amongst the finest Fights ‘n’ Tights tales ever told. Moreover, you should definitely own them, and now you can…
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2018 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Zatanna’s Search

By Gardner Fox & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0188-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless and Magical… 8/10

With Julius Schwartz and John Broome, writer extraordinaire Gardner Fox built the Silver Age of comics and laid the foundations of the modern DC universe. He was also a canny innovator and one of the earliest proponents of extended storylines which have since become so familiar to us as “braided crossovers.”

A qualified lawyer, Fox began his comics career in the Golden Age on major and minor features, working in every genre and for most companies. One of the B-list strips he scripted was Zatara; a magician-hero in the Mandrake mould who had fought evil and astounded audiences in the pages of Action and World’s Finest Comics for over a decade, beginning with the very first issues (to be completely accurate the latter’s premiere performance was entitled World’s Best Comics #1, but whatever the book’s name, the top-hatted and suavely tailed and tailored trickster was there…)

Zatara fell from favour at the end of the 1940s, fading from memory like so many other outlandish crime-crushers. In 1956 Editor Schwartz reinvented the superhero genre and reintroduced costumed characters based on the company’s past pantheon. Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom were refitted for the sleek, scientific atomic age, and later their legendary predecessors were reincarnated and returned as denizens of an alternate Earth.

As the experiment became a trend and then inexorable policy, surviving heroes such as Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Wonder Woman were retrofitted to match the new world order. The Superhero was back and the public appetite seemed inexhaustible.

For their next trick Fox & Schwartz turned to the magician and presumably found him wanting. Rather than condemn him to Earth-2 they created the first “legacy hero” by having Zatara vanish from sight and introduced his daughter, set on a far-reaching quest to find him. Zatanna debuted in Hawkman #4 (October-November 1964) illustrated by the great Murphy Anderson in a tale entitled ‘The Girl who Split in Two’.

Following a mystical trail and wearing a variation of Zatara’s garb the plucky but impatient lass had divided her body and travelled simultaneously to Ireland and China, but lapsed into paralysis until Hawkman and Hawkgirl answered her distress call.

Although nobody knew it at the time she appeared next as a villain in Detective Comics #336 (February 1965). ‘Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare’ found a broom-riding old crone attacking the Dynamic Duo at the command of mutant super-threat The Outsider in a stirring yarn drawn by Bob Kane and Joe Giella.

Current opinion is that this wasn’t originally intended as part of the epic, but when the quest was resolved in Justice League of America #51 at the height of TV inspired “Batmania”, a very slick piece of back-writing was necessary to bring the high-profile Caped Crusader into the storyline.

Gil Kane & Sid Greene illustrated the next two chapters in the saga; firstly in ‘World of the Magic Atom’ (Atom #19, June-July 1965), wherein Mystic Maid and Tiny Titan battle Zatara’s old nemesis the Druid in the microcosmic world of Catamoore, and then later with the Emerald Gladiator in an extra-dimensional realm on ‘The Other Side of the World!’ (Green Lantern #42, January 1966).

Here the malevolently marauding, potentially Earth-dominating Warlock of Ys is eventually overcome after a mighty struggle and compelled to reveal further clues in the trail.

The Elongated Man starred in a long-running back-up feature in Detective Comics, and from #355 (September 1966, pencilled and inked by Carmine Infantino) ‘The Tantalizing Trouble of the Tripod Thieves!’ revealed how the search for a stolen eldritch artefact brought the young sorceress closer to her goal, and the search concluded in spectacular and fabulously satisfying fashion with the aforementioned JLA tale ‘Z – As in Zatanna – and Zero Hour!’ (#51, February 1967).

With art from the incomparable team of Mike Sekowsky & Sid Greene, all the heroes who aided her are transported to another mystical plane to fight in a classic battle of good versus evil, with plenty of cunning surprises for all and a happy ending at the end.

Collected here is a triumphant early and long-running experiment in continuity that remains one of the very best adventures of the Silver Age, featuring some of the period’s greatest creators at the peak of their powers.

This slim volume also has an enticing encore in store: following the mandatory cover gallery is a never before reprinted 10-page tale. ‘The Secret Spell!’ – by Gerry Conway, Romeo Tanghal & Vince Colletta – was originally seen in DC Blue Ribbon Digest #5 (November-December 1980) which revealed ‘Secret Origins of Super-Heroes’ and explores the hidden history of both father and daughter in a snappy, informative and inclusive manner.

Although a little hard to find now – and a top candidate to be arcanely transmogrified into an eBook – this is a superlative volume for fans of costumed heroes and would also make a wonderful tome to introduce newcomers to the genre.

© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1980, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Sunday Classics 1943-1946

By Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray & various (Sterling)
ISBN: 978-1-1402-4718-2

For most of the 20th century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country and the planet, with millions of readers and accepted (in most places) as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books, it also paid better. The Holiest of Holies was a full-colour Sunday page.

However, it was always something of a poisoned chalice when a comicbook property became so popular that it swam against the tide (after all weren’t the funny-books invented just to reprint the strips in cheap accessible form?) to become a syndicated serial strip.

Superman, Wonder Woman, Archie Andrews and a few others made the jump in the 1940s and many features have done so since. One of the most highly regarded came late to the party even though it was probably the highest quality offering, both in its daily and Sunday format. It was called Batman and Robin.

Although a highpoint in strip cartooning, both simultaneous Batman features were cursed by ill-timing. The feature finally debuted during a period in newspaper publishing that was afflicted by rationing, shortages and a changing marketplace.

These strips never achieved the circulation they deserved, but at least the Sundays were given a new lease of life after DC began reprinting vintage stories in the 1960s in their 80-Page Giants and Annuals.

The superior quality adventures were ideal action-mystery short stories, adding an extra cachet of exoticism for young readers already captivated by enjoying tales of their heroes that were positively ancient and redolent of History with a capital “H”.

The stories themselves are broken down into complete single page instalments building into short tales averaging between four to six pages per adventure. The mandatory esoteric foes include such regulars as the Penguin (twice), Joker, Catwoman and Two-Face and all-original themed villains such as The Gopher, The Sparrow and Falstaff, but the bulk of the yarns offer more prosaic criminals, if indeed there is any antagonist at all…

A huge benefit of work produced for an audience deemed “more mature” is the freedom to explore human interest stories such as exonerating wrongly convicted men, fighting forest fires or discovering the identity of an amnesia victim. There is even a jolly seasonal yarn that bracketed Christmas week, 1945.

The writers of the strip included Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz with art by Bob Kane, Jack Burnley and Fred Ray and inking by Win Mortimer and Charles Paris. The letterer was tireless, invisible calligraphic master Ira Schnapp and the strips were all coloured by Raymond Perry.

This lovely oversized (241 x 318 mm) full colour hardback was originally published in conjunction by DC Comics & Kitchen Sink Press in 1991, and also contains a wealth of extra features such as biographical notes, a history of the strip, promotional artefacts, behind-the-scenes artwork and sketches, promotional features and much more. It’s long past time it was back in print – and eBooked too – as it’s a must for both Bat-fans and lovers of the artform and a certain anniversary is fast approaching…
© 1991, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central Book 1: In the Line of Duty

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1923-9 (HB)                    978-1-4012-2037-2 (TPB)

One of the great joys of long-lasting, legendary comics characters is their potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case was Gotham Central, wherein contemporary television sensibilities cannily combined with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue in the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it did to the baroque continuity of Batman, the series mixed gritty, authentic police action with a soft-underbelly peek at what the merely mortal guardians and peacekeepers had to put up with in a world of psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This compilation – available in hardback, soft cover and eBook editions – collects Gotham Central #1-10 (spanning February to October 2003), lovingly crafted by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with sublimely understated illustration from Michael Lark and comes with an erudite and informative Introduction on ‘The Mean Streets of Gotham’ by celebrated crime author Lawrence Block.

Brubaker & Rucka co-wrote the eponymous two-part premier tale ‘In the Line of Duty’ wherein a desperate child-kidnap investigation by detectives Marcus Driver and Charlie Fields of ex-Commissioner Gordon’s hand-picked Major Crimes Unit leads them all unawares to the temporary hideout of murderous superfreak Mr Freeze.

The cold-hearted killer horrifically eliminates Charlie but sadistically leaves Driver injured and alive… as an object lesson.

The GCPD have a strange relationship with the Dark Knight. They all know he’s out there, but the official line is that he’s an urban myth and the Administration refuses to acknowledge his existence.

Thus, a civilian is employed to turn on the bat-signal on the roof when crises occur and the public are told the eerie light is simply used to keep the cowardly, superstitious underworld cowed…

In such circumstances all real cops are loath to ask for The Bat’s help and Driver and his grieving, angry colleagues pull out all the stops to find and capture Freeze before the masked vigilante insultingly finishes their job for them.

However, as night falls and the flash-frozen body count rises, Marcus deduces what Freeze is planning and has no choice but to ask new Police Commissioner Akins to suspend his embargo and call in the whacko expert before hundreds more die…

From an era when comicbook noir was enjoying a superb renaissance, this classic take on the theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is a masterpiece of edgy and fast-paced tension whilst simultaneously smoothly and memorably introducing a large cast of splendidly realised new and very individual players…

Brubaker solo-scripts the second story as ‘Motive’ finds the now fit-for-duty Driver and his temporary partner Romy Chandler using solid police work to solve the outstanding kidnap case, all the while under the gun since arson villain The Firebug is dancing on the horizon, burning down Gotham one building at a time.

Fourteen-year old babysitter Bonnie Lewis vanished while walking home from her yuppie client’s house, and a subsequent ransom demand later proved to be a fake. Now, after her body is found, Driver and Chandler meticulously re-examine the facts and discover that almost everybody involved has been lying…

As they methodically sift evidence, alibis and possible motives, they begin to realise that even this tragically normal crime has its roots in both common greed and the gaudy madness of the city’s abundant metahuman menaces…

The gripping procedural drama then segues back to the city’s aristocracy of maniacs as Greg Rucka scripts ‘Half a Life’ with focus switching to Renee Montoya: a solid cop with too many secrets.

After her former partner Harvey Bullock was fired with extreme prejudice, tongues started wagging, but now an old case threatens to destroy her career and end her life…

When arresting rapist Marty Lipari, he tried to stab her, and Montoya forcefully subdued him. Now her morning is ruined after the skel sues her for ten million dollars in damages.

It only gets worse when she and partner Crispus Allen get a bogus case dumped on them by the corrupt, lazy meatheads in Robbery Division. However, the capper is dinner with her traditional, devout Catholic parents who still want her to settle down and have kids…

Her life begins to truly unravel when a photo of her kissing another woman does the rounds of colleagues, friends and family. Not all her fellow cops are homophobic bigots: but just enough are. That’s why she kept her life private for years.

Now, apparently outed by Lipari’s hired gumshoe Brian Selker, she is targeted by Internal Affairs when first the PI and then Lipari himself are found shot to death.

With her lover Darla threatened, her gun identified as the murder weapon and a huge quantity of illicit drugs found in her apartment, Renee is soon on her way to jail – another bad egg just like Bullock…

Nobody in MCU thinks she’s guilty but the evidence is overwhelming, and the crisis comes when en route she’s busted out by masked men and taken to the hidden citadel of one of Batman’s most nightmarish nemeses…

Utterly alone, in the unfriendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth, Montoya has to deal alone with a crazed maniac who’s destroyed her life just so he can be with her forever.

As a Major Crimes detective she’s seen how bad The Bat’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter or witness, and it’s not just her life at stake…

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds, irrespective of the nature of evil in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story of 2003.

Sadly not included in this volume are the two earlier tales from Renee’s past (you might want to track down Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka & Jason Pearson & Cam Smith and Detective Comics#747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado & Steve Mitchell) which explained that oblique connection to her obsessive suitor. You can find them in the original 2005 trade paperback Gotham Central: Half a Life. and hopefully future editions will restore them to this volume too.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo all play well under Michael Lark’s deft subtle artwork, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old-fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, all playing out with compulsive veracity in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

This smart cop thriller set on the edge of hell is a stunning study in genre-crossing storytelling, and this edition includes a full cover gallery by Lark as well as a fulsome section of designs and character sketches in bonus feature ‘Staffing the GCPD’.

Dark, suspenseful and so very addictive, this is a book no bat-freak or crime buff can afford to miss.
© 2004, 2005, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Green Lantern: The Silver Age volume 3

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7847-2

After their hugely successful revival and reworking of The Flash, DC (or National Periodical Publications as they traded back then) were keen to build on the resurgent superhero trend. Showcase #22 hit the stands at the same time as the fourth issue of the new Flash comicbook – #108 – and once again the guiding lights were Editor Julie Schwartz and writer John Broome. Assigned as illustrator was action ace Gil Kane, generally inked by Joe Giella.

Hal Jordan was a brash young test pilot in California when an alien policeman crashed his spaceship on Earth. Mortally wounded, Abin Sur commanded his ring – a device which could materialise thoughts – to seek out a replacement officer: one both honest and without fear.

Scanning the planet, the wonder weapon selected Jordan and whisked him to the crash-site. The dying alien bequeathed his ring, the lantern-shaped Battery of Power and his profession to the astonished Earthman.

In six pages ‘S.O.S Green Lantern’ established characters, scenario and narrative thrust of a series that would increasingly become the spine of DC continuity.

Now that the concept of the superhero was swiftly being re-established among the buying public, there was no shortage of gaudily clad competition. The better books survived by having something a little “extra”.

With Green Lantern that was primarily the superb scripts of John Broome and Gardner Fox and the astounding drawing of Gil Kane (ably abetted by primary inker Joe Giella) whose dynamic anatomy and dramatic action scenes were maturing with every page he drew. Happily, the concept itself was also a provider of boundless opportunity.

Other heroes had extraterrestrial, other-dimensional and even trans-temporal adventures, but the valiant champion of this series was also a cop: a lawman working for the biggest police force in the entire universe.

This fabulous paperback and eBook compilation gathers Green Lantern #23-35 (September 1962 – March 1965) and begins without fanfare as our hero tackles the ‘Threat of the Tattooed Man!’

This was the first all Gardner Fox scripted issue and the start of Giella’s tenure as sole inker, as the Ring-Slinger tackles a second-rate thief who lucks into the eerie power to animate his skin-ink, after which ‘The Green Lantern Disasters’ takes the interplanetary lawman off-world to rescue missing comrade Xax of Xaos: an insectoid member of the GL Corps.

Broome scripted issue #24, heralding the first appearance of ‘The Shark that Hunted Human Prey!’ as an atomic accident hyper-evolves the ocean’s deadliest predator into a psychic fear-feeder, after which ‘The Strange World Named Green Lantern!’ (with inks from Frank Giacoia & Giella) finds the Emerald Crusader trapped on a sentient and lonely planet that craves his constant presence…

Green Lantern #25 featured Fox’s full-length thriller ‘War of the Weapon Wizards! as GL falls foul of lethally persistent ultra-nationalist Sonar and his silent partner-in-crime Hector Hammond, whilst in the next issue Hal Jordan’s girlfriend Carol Ferris is once more transformed into an alien queen determined to beat him into marital submission in ‘Star Sapphire Unmasks Green Lantern!’

This witty cracker from Fox is supplemented by his superb fantasy ‘World Within the Power Ring!’ as the Viridian Avenger battles an extraterrestrial sorcerer imprisoned within his ring by his deceased predecessor Abin Sur!

Fox’s super-scientific crime thriller ‘Mystery of the Deserted City!’ led in GL #27 whilst Broome charmed and alarmed with ‘The Amazing Transformation of Horace Tolliver!’, as Hal learns a lesson in who to help – and how.

No prizes for guessing who – or what – menace returns in #28’s ‘The Shark Goes on the Prowl Again!’, but kudos if you can solve the puzzle of ‘The House that Fought Green Lantern’: both engaging romps courtesy of writer Fox whereas Broome adds to his tally of memorable villain creations with the debut of Black Hand – “the Cliché Criminal” – who purloins a portion of GL’s power in ‘Half a Green Lantern is Better than None!’ as well as scripting a brilliant back-up alien invader tale in ‘This World is Mine!’

This issue, #29, is doubly memorable as not only does it feature a rare – for the times – Justice League cameo (soon to be inevitable – if not interminable – as comics continuity grew into an unstoppable force in all companies’ output) but also because the incredibly talented Sid Greene signed on as regular inker.

Issue #30 featured two more Broome tales: dinosaur attack thriller ‘The Tunnel Through Time!’ and a compelling epic of duty and love as Katma Tui, who replaced the renegade Sinestro as the Guardians’ operative, learns to her eternal regret ‘Once a Green Lantern… Always a Green Lantern!’

The same writer also provided the baffling mystery ‘Power Rings for Sale!’ and the tense Jordan Brothers thriller ‘Pay Up – or Blow Up!’ whilst Fox handled all of #32: tantalizing crime caper ‘Green Lantern’s Wedding Day!’ and trans-galactic Battle Royale ‘Power Battery Peril!’ in which Jordan comes to the initially involuntary assistance of an alien superhero team…

Nefarious villain Dr. Light decided to pick off his enemies one by after his defeat in Justice League of America #12. His attempts in various member’s home titles reached GL with #33, but here too he got a damned good thrashing in ‘Wizard of the Light Wave Weapons!’, whereas the thugs in the back-up yarn, as well as giving artist Gil Kane another excuse to show his love of and facility with movie gangster caricatures, come far too close to ending the Emerald Gladiator’s life in ‘The Disarming of Green Lantern!’

Fox had by this time become lead writer and indeed wrote all the remaining stories in this volume. ‘Three-Way Attack against Green Lantern!’ in #34 was another full-length cosmic extravaganza as Hector Hammond discovers the secrets of the Guardians of the Universe and launches an all-out assault on our hero, after which both scripts in #35 – costumed villain drama ‘Prisoner of the Golden Mask!’ and brain-swop spy-saga ‘The Eagle Crusader of Earth!’ – look much closer to home for their abundance of thrills, chills and spills.

These costumed drama romps are in themselves a great read for most ages, but when also considered as the building blocks of all DC continuity they become vital fare for any fan keen to make sense of the modern superhero experience.

Judged solely on their own merit, these are snappy, awe-inspiring, beautifully illustrated captivatingly clever thrillers that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old devotees. This lovely collection is a must-read item for anybody in love with our art-form and especially for anyone just now encountering the hero for the first time through his movie incarnations.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes volume 1

By Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway, Paul Kupperberg, Jack C. Harris, Mike Grell, James Sherman, Jim Starlin, Ric Estrada, Howard Chaykin, George Tuska, Walt Simonson, Mike Nasser, Juan Ortiz & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7291-3 (HB)

Once upon a time, a thousand years from now, a band of super-powered kids from a multitude of worlds took inspiration from the greatest legend of all time and formed a club of heroes. One day those Children of Tomorrow came back in time and invited their inspiration to join them…

Thus, began the vast and epic saga of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as first envisioned by writer Otto Binder & artist Al Plastino when the many-handed mob of juvenile universe-savers debuted in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), just as the revived superhero genre was gathering an inexorable head of steam in America. Happy 60th Anniversary, Futurians!

Since that time the fortunes and popularity of the Legion have perpetually waxed and waned, with their future history continually tweaked and overwritten, retconned and rebooted time and time again to comply with editorial diktat and popular fashion.

This cosmically-captivating compendium (available in sturdy hardback and digital editions) gathers a chronological parade of futuristic delights from Superboy and The Legion of Super-Heroes #234-240, covering December 1977 to June 1978, as well as an untold tale of their earliest exploits from DC Super-Stars #17 as well as a major event from tabloid colossus All-New Collector’s Edition C-55.

This was a period when the recently impoverished superhero genre had again flared into vibrant new life to gain its current, seemingly unassailable ascendancy.

That prior plunge in costumed character popularity had seen the team lose their long-held lead spot in Adventure Comics, get relegated to a back-up slot in Action Comics and even vanish completely for a time. Legion fans however are the most passionate of an already fanatical breed…

No sooner had the LSH faded than fan agitation to revive them began. After a few tentative forays as an alternating back-up feature in Superboy, the game-changing artwork of Dave Cockrum inspired a fresh influx of fans and the back-up soon took over the book – exactly as they had done in the 1960s when the Tomorrow Teens took Adventure from the Boy of Steel and made it uniquely their own…

Without warning or preamble, the adventure resumes with Jack C. Harris, Juan Ortiz & Bob Smith exploring ‘The Secret of the Quintile Crystal’ (from DC Super-Stars #17, December 1977) as founders Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy relate to Superboy how a theft by diplomats beyond the reach of the law catapulted the kids – and their unique problem-solving gifts – to the forefront of United Planets security planning…

Superboy and The Legion of Super-Heroes #234 then details a contemporary cosmic catastrophe as a clash with a space dragon mutates a squad of heroes into a marauding amalgamated menace. When the call goes out ‘Wanted Dead or Alive: The Composite Legionnaire’ (by Gerry Conway, Ric Estrada & Jack Abel) ultimate mercenary Bounty goes after the victim and he’ won’t let sentiment of the remaining heroes interfere with ‘The Final Hunt!’

Happily, Superboy and energy-being Wildfire have enough power to stop the hunter and cure their companions…

Issue #235 features the kind of story uber-dedicated fans adore. ‘The Legion’s Super-Secret’ – by Paul Levitz, Mike Grell & Vince Colletta) gives a glimpse into the covert mental condition Superboy endures every time he returns to his own era. When the process is abruptly interrupted because of a raid by resource hungry Sklarians, the Legionnaires fear the greatest hero of all time may betray the 39th century’s most dangerous biological deception.

Although a tense and rousing escapade, the sad truth is that this tale was conceived to placate sections of the audience who kept carping on about why clearly fully mature characters were still being designated “Boy”, “Girl”, “Kid”, “Lass” and “Lad”. As if comics never had serious social problems and issues to address, right?

The lead story is far-surpassed by potent back-up ‘Trial of the Legion Five’ (Conway, George Tuska & Colletta) wherein some of the heroes are accused of causing the death of a citizen caught in the rampage of the Composite Legionnaire. Their accuser is an old political adversary bearing a grudge and as ever, things are not what they seem…

S&LSH #236 was a power-packed portmanteau offering and brimming with vibrant new artistic talent. It begins with ‘A World Born Anew’ (written by Levitz & Paul Kupperberg with stunning art from neophytes James Sherman & Bob McLeod). When fantastically powerful alien property speculator Worldsmith starts arbitrarily terraforming the planet Braal, even a full team of heroes is unable to stop him until Princess Projectra deduces a better way to send the crazed capitalist packing.

Levitz, Mike Nasser, Joe Rubinstein & Rick Bryant then provide an all-action prologue to greater sagas ahead as ‘Mon-El’s One-Man War’ finds the formidable Daxamite exerting all his energies to save an experimental star mine during a bloody incursion by the war-crazed Khunds before the moment Legion fans had awaited for decades finally came…

‘Words Never Spoken’ by Levitz, Sherman & Rubinstein at long last saw Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl set the day…

No longer bound by responsibility, they had agreed to quit the team – because teammates weren’t allowed to marry – resulting in a huge tabloid sized publishing milestone released as All-New Collector’s Edition C-55 (March 1978).

Comicbook weddings never start well and ‘The Millennium Massacre’ (by Levitz, Grell & Colletta) coincided with a dastardly plot to rewrite history by their greatest foe. As the young marrieds stumble into a honeymoon ‘Murder by Moonlight’, Superboy and a select team voyage to 1988. They’re hoping to prevent the destruction of the United Nations and solve ‘The Twisted History Mystery’ before their comrades and the newlyweds perish in an interplanetary war but the real showdown only occurs after a ‘Showdown at the End of Eternity’

Accompanied by a potted visual history of ‘Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes’ from Gell & Colletta and fact-features ‘The Origins and Powers of the Legionnaires’ and Secrets of the Legion’ by Levitz, Sherman & Abel this epic event set the scene for a darker, more compelling tone…

That began with #237’s ‘No Price Too High’ (Levitz, Walt Simonson & Abel) wherein the team’s financial backer R. J. Brande is abducted by maniac Arma Getten who demands the team bring him ‘The Heart of a Star’, ‘The Stolen Trophy’ and life-sustaining artefact ‘The Crown of the Graxls’ in return for their friend’s life…

Well aware these objects hold the power ‘To Shake the Stars’ the team comply. Apparently…

Due to deadline problems #238 was a hasty reprint of Adventure Comics #359 & 360 and is represented here by its spiffy new Jim Starlin wraparound cover, but the intended tale when it finally emerged was an instant classic.

Plotted and laid out by Starlin, with Levitz script and Rubinstein finishes, #239’s ‘Murder Most Foul’ saw rowdy, rebellious Ultra Boy framed for murdering a prostitute and on the run from his former comrades. Only LSH Espionage Squad leader Chameleon Boy saw something behind the seemingly open-&-shut case, and his off-the-books investigation indicated there was indeed a Legion traitor: potentially the most dangerous opponent of all…

The final inclusion in this mammoth compilation is #240 which offered a brace of thrillers. Levitz, Harris, Howard Chaykin & Bob Wiacek opened with ‘The Man Who Manacled the Legion’ as old foe Grimbor the Chainsman kidnapped the UP President in a bizarre plot to kill the heroes he held responsible for the death of his true love. The book does end on a tantalising high however as Levitz, Kupperberg, Sherman & McLeod take us into the Legion Training Academy to introduce a bevy of new heroes eager to join the big guns. Super dense Jed Rikane (yes, I know, just go with it), invulnerable Laurel Kent and Shadow Lad (Shadow Lass’ younger brother) all show potential and flaws in equal amounts but the mutant tracker mercenary is who really troubles Wildfire. ‘Dawnstar Rising’ shows not only her immense ability but a disregard for her comrades that could have lethal consequences in the days to come, unless the Legion somehow works its inclusive magic on her…

Rounding out the future fun, ‘Notes from Behind the Scenes’ provides glimpses at Levitz’s original presentation for tabloid edition, plots for a Queen Projectra tale and data cheat sheets for Saturn Girl and others.

The Legion is unquestionably one of the most beloved and bewildering creations in comics history and largely responsible for the growth of the groundswell movement that became American Comics Fandom. Moreover, these scintillating and seductively addictive stories – as much as Julie Schwartz’s Justice League of America or Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four – fuelled the interest and imaginations of generations of readers to create the industry we all know today.

If you love comics and haven’t read this stuff, you are the poorer for it and need to feed your dreams of a better tomorrow as soon as possible.
© 1977, 1978, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Eclipso

By Bob Haney, Lee Elias, Alex Toth, Jack Sparling & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2315-1

Although it’s generally accepted that everybody loves a good villain they seldom permit them the opportunity of starring in their own series (except perhaps in British comics, where for decades the most bizarre and outrageous rogues such as Charlie Peace, Spring-Heeled Jack, Dick Turpin, Von Hoffman or The Dwarf were seen as far more interesting than mere lawmen).

However, when America went superhero crazy in the 1960s (even before the Batman TV show sent the entire world into a wild and garish “High Camp” frenzy) DC converted all of its anthology titles into character-driven vehicles. Long-running paranormal investigator Mark Merlin suddenly found himself sharing the cover spot with a costumed but very different kind of co-star.

Breathing new life into the hallowed Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde concept, Bob Haney & Lee Elias debuted ‘Eclipso, The Genius Who Fought Himself’ in House of Secrets #61 (cover-dated July-August 1963. It began the torturous saga of solar scientist Bruce Gordon who was cursed to become host to a timeless Evil.

Whilst observing a solar eclipse on tropical Diablo Island, Gordon is attacked and wounded by Mophir, a crazed witchdoctor wielding a black diamond. As a result, whenever an eclipse occurs Gordon’s body is possessed by a demonic, destructive alter ego with incredible powers and malign hyper-intellect.

The remainder of the first instalment showed how the intangible interloper destroyed Gordon’s greatest achievement: a futuristic solar-powered city.

The format established, Gordon, his fiancé Mona Bennett and her father, who was also Gordon’s mentor, pursued and battled the incredible Eclipso and his increasingly astounding schemes. At least he had a handy weakness: exposure to sudden bright lights would propel him back to his cage within Bruce Gordon…

‘Duel of the Divided Man’ saw the helpless scientist attempting to thwart the uncontrollable transformations by submerging to the bottom of the Ocean and exiling himself to space – to no effect, whilst in ‘Eclipso’s Amazing Ally!’ – illustrated by the justifiably-legendary Alex Toth – the malignant presence manifests when an artificial eclipse and lab accident frees him entirely from Gordon’s body.

Against the backdrop of a South American war Gordon and Professor Bennett struggle to contain the liberated horror but all is not as it seems…

Issue #64 ‘Hideout on Fear Island’ finds Gordon, Mona and Bennett hijacked to a Caribbean nation inundated by giant plants for an incredible clash with giant robots and Nazi scientists. Naturally, when Eclipso breaks out things go from bad to worse…

‘The Man Who Destroyed Eclipso’ has the Photonic Fiend kidnap Mona before a deranged physicist actually separates Eclipso and Gordon as part of his wild scheme to steal a nuclear missile, after which the threat of a terrifying alien omnivore forces heroes and villain to temporarily join forces in ‘The Two Faces of Doom!’

‘Challenge of the Split-Man!’ sees Gordon and Eclipso once more at odds as the desperate scientist returns to Mophir’s lair in search of a cure before inexplicably following the liberated villain to a robot factory in Scotland.

Veteran cartoonist Jack Sparling took over the artist’s role with #68 wherein ‘Eclipso’s Deadly Doubles!’ reveal how Gordon’s latest attempt to effect a cure only multiplies his problems, after which ‘Wanted: Eclipso Dead or Alive!’ relates how the beleaguered boffin is hired by Scotland Yard to capture himself – or at least his wicked and still-secret other self…

‘Bruce Gordon, Eclipso’s Ally!’ returns the long-suffering trio to Latin America where an accident robs Gordon of his memory – but not his curse – leading to the most ironic alliance in comics…

‘The Trial of Eclipso’ has the periodically freed felon finally captured by the police and threatening to expose Gordon’s dark secret after which ‘The Moonstone People’ strand the Bennetts, Gordon and Eclipso on a lost island populated by scientists who haven’t aged since their own arrival in 1612…

Even such a talented writer as Bob Haney occasionally strained at the restrictions of writing a fresh story for a villainous protagonist under Comics Code Restrictions, and later tales became increasingly more outlandish after ‘Eclipso Battles the Sea Titan’, in which a subsea monster threatens not just the surface world but also Eclipso’s ultimate refuge – Bruce Gordon’s fragile body…

Another attempt to expel or eradicate the horror inside accidentally creates a far more dangerous enemy in ‘The Negative Eclipso’ after which a criminal syndicate, fed up with the Photonic Fury’s disruption of their operations, decrees ‘Eclipso Must Die!’

It had to happen – and did – when Mark Merlin (in his new and unwieldy superhero persona of Prince Ra-Man) met his House of Secrets stable-mate in book-length thriller ‘Helio, the Sun Demon!’ (#76, with the concluding second chapter drawn by the inimitable Bernard Baily).

Here Eclipso creates a fearsome, fiery solar slave and the Bennetts team with the enigmatic super-sorcerer to free Bruce and save the world from flaming destruction.

All-out fantasy subsumed suspense in the strip’s dying days with aliens and weird creatures abounding, such as ‘The Moon Creatures’ which Eclipso grew from lunar dust to do his wicked bidding or the hidden treasure of Stonehenge that transformed him into a ‘Monster Eclipso’.

Issue #79 saw a return match for Prince Ra-Man in ‘The Master of Yesterday and Tomorrow!’ with Baily again pitching for an extended epic wherein Eclipso gets his scurrilous hands on a selection of time-bending trinkets, before #80 (October 1966) ended the series with no fanfare, no warning and no ultimate resolution as ‘The Giant Eclipso!’ pitted the fade-away fiend against mutants, cops and his own colossal doppelganger.

Not everything old is gold and this quirky, exceedingly eccentric collection of comics thrillers certainly won’t appeal to everyone. However, there is a gloriously outré charm and helter-skelter, fanciful delight in these silly but absorbing sagas.

If you’re of an open-minded mien and the art of Elias, Toth, Sparling and Baily appeals as it should to all right-thinking fans (the drawing never looked more vibrant or effective than in this crisp and splendid black and white collection) then this old-world casket of bizarre wonders will certainly appeal.

Not for him or her or them then, but perhaps this book is for you?
© 1963-1966, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Dial H for Hero

By Dave Wood, Jim Mooney, George Roussos, Frank Springer, Sal Trapani Jack Sparling & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2648-0

In the mid-Sixties the entire world went crazy for costumed crusaders and every comicbook publisher was frantically seeking new ways to repackage an extremely exciting yet intrinsically limited concept. Perhaps its ultimate expression came with the creation of a teen-aged everyman champion who battled crime and disaster in his little town with the aid on a fantastic wonder-tool…

This slim monochrome paperback compendium collects the entire run from House of Mystery (#156, January 1966 to #173, March-April 1968) when the title vanished for a few months to re-emerge later as DC’s first new anthological supernatural mystery titles: the next big sensation…

Created by Dave Wood & Jim Mooney, Dial H For Hero detailed the incredible adventures of boy genius Robby Reed who lived with his grandfather in idyllic Littleville: a genial everytown where nothing ever happened…

Sadly, very little is known about writer Dave Wood, whose prolific output began in the early days of the American comics industry and whose work includes such seminal classics (often with artistic legends Jack Kirby and Wally no-relation Wood) as Challengers of the Unknown and seminal “Space Race” newspaper strip Sky Masters.

A skilled jobbing writer, Wood frequently collaborated with his brother Dick. They bounced around the industry, scripting mystery, war, science fiction and adventure tales and among his/their vast credits are stints on most Superman family titles, Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest, Green Arrow, Rex the Wonder Dog, Tomahawk, Blackhawk, Martian Manhunter and many others.

As well as Dial H For Hero Wood created the bizarre sleeper hit Animal Man and the esoteric but fondly regarded Ultra, the Multi-Alien.

James Noel Mooney started his comics career in 1940, aged 21, working for the Eisner & Eiger production shop and at Fiction House on The Moth, Camilla, Suicide Smith and other B-features. By the end of the year he was a mainstay of Timely Comic’s vast funny animal/animated cartoon tie-in department.

In 1946 Jim moved to DC to ghost Batman for Bob Kane and Dick Sprang. He stayed until 1968, working on a host of features including Superman, Superboy, Legion of Super-Heroes, World’s Finest Comics and Tommy Tomorrow, as well as various genre short stories for the company’s assorted anthology titles like Tales of the Unexpected and House of Mystery.

He famously drew Supergirl from her series debut in Action Comics #253 to #373, after which he returned to Marvel and stellar runs on Spider-Man, Marvel Team-up, Omega the Unknown, Man-Thing, Ghost Rider and a host of other features as both penciller and inker. Prior to that move he was illustrating Dial H For Hero; the only original DC feature he co-created.

Big things were clearly expected of the new feature, which was parachuted in as lead and cover feature, demoting the venerable Martian Manhunter to a back-up role at the rear of each issue.

The first – untitled – story opens with an attack on the local chemical works by super-scientific criminal organisation Thunderbolt just as young Robby and his pals are playing in the hills above the site. As they flee, the plucky lad is caught in a landslide and falls into an ancient cave where lies hidden an obviously alien artefact that looks like an outlandish telephone dial.

After finding his way out of the cavern Robby becomes obsessed with the device and spends all his time attempting to translate the arcane hieroglyphs on it. Eventually he determines that they are instructions to dial the symbols which translate to “H”, “E”, “R” and “O”…

Ever curious, Robby complies and ia suddenly transformed into a colossal super-powered Giantboy, just in time to save a crashing airliner and quash another Thunderbolt raid. Returning home, he reverses the dialling process and goes to bed…

These were and still are perfect wish-fulfilment stories: uncluttered and uncomplicated yarns concealing no grand messages or themes: just straight entertainment expertly undertaken by experienced and gifted craftsmen who knew just how to reach their young-at-heart audiences. Thus, no-one is surprised at the ease with which Robby adapts to his new situation…

When Thunderbolt strikes again next morning Robby grabs his dial but is startled to become a different hero – high-energy being The Cometeer.

Streaking to the rescue he is overcome by the raider’s super weapon and forced dial back into Robby again. Undeterred, he later tries again and as The Mole finally tracks the villains to their base and defeats them. The leader escapes, however, to become the series’ only returning villain…

Mr. Thunder was back in the very next issue as Robby became The Human, Bullet, bestial energy-being Super-Charge and eerie alien Radar-Sonar Man to crush ‘The Marauders from Thunderbolt Island’ after which criminal scientist Daffy Dagan steals the H-Dial after defeating the boy’s next temporary alter ego Quake-Master.

Dagan becomes a horrifying multi-powered monster when he learns to ‘Dial “V” For Villain’ but after the defeated hero takes back the artefact Robby redials into techno-warrior The Squid and belatedly saves the day.

Clearly the Mystery in House of… was related to where the Dial came from, what its unknown parameters were and who Robby would transform into next…

Issue #159 pitted The Human Starfish, Hypno-Man and super-powered toddler Mighty Moppet (who wielded weaponised baby bottles) in single combats with a shape-changing gang of bandits dubbed ‘The Clay-Creep Clan’ whilst ‘The Wizard of Light’ played with the format a little by introducing a potential love-interest for Robby in his best friend’s cousin Suzy

It also saw the return of Giant-Boy, the introduction of sugar-based sentinel of justice King Candy and the lad’s only transformation into an already established hero – the Golden Age legend Plastic Man.

Cynical me now suspects the move was a tester to see if the Pliable Paladin – who had been an inert resource since the company had bought out original publisher Quality Comics in 1956 – was ripe for a relaunch in the new, superhero-hungry environment.

DC’s Plastic Man #1 was released five months later…

House of Mystery #161 featured awesome ancient Egyptian menace ‘The Mummy with Six Heads’ who proves too much for Robby as Magneto (same powers but so very not a certain Marvel villain) and Hornet-Man, but not intangible avenger Shadow-Man, whilst in the next issue ‘The Monster-Maker of Littleville’ is proved by Mr. Echo and Future-Man to be less mad scientist than greedy entrepreneur…

‘Baron Bug and his Insect Army’ almost ends Robby’s clandestine career when the boy turns into two heroes at once; but even though celestial twins Castor and Pollux are overmatched, animated slinky-toy King Coil proves sufficient to stamp out the Baron’s giant mini-beasts. Human wave Zip Tide, living star Super Nova and Robby the Super-Robot are then hard-pressed to stop the rampages of ‘Dr. Cyclops – the Villain with the Doomsday Stare’ but eventually overcome the outrageous odds – and oddness…

Things got decidedly peculiar in #165 when a clearly malfunctioning H-Dial called up ‘The Freak Super-Heroes’Whoozis, Whatsis and Howzis – to battle Dr. Rigoro Mortis and his artificial thug Super-Hood in a bizarrely captivating romp with what looks like some unacknowledged inking assistance from veteran brush-meister George Roussos (who popped in a couple more times until Mooney’s departure).

Suzy became a fixture by moving into the house next door with ‘The King of the Curses’ who found his schemes to plunder the city thwarted by The Yankee-Doodle Kid and Chief Mighty Arrow, a war-bonneted Indian brave on a winged horse…

In HoM #167 ‘The Fantastic Rainbow Raider’ easily defeated Balloon Boy and Muscle Man but had no defence against the returning Radar-Sonar Man, whilst ‘The Marauding Moon Man’ easily overmatched Robby as The Hoopster but had no defence when another glitch turned old incarnations The Mole and Cometeer into a single heroic composite imaginatively christened Mole-Cometeer, but the biggest shock of all comes when ‘The Terrible Toymaster’ defeats Robby – AKA Velocity Kid – and Suzy cajoles the fallen hero into dialling her into the scintillating Gem Girl to finish the mission.

As it was the 1960s, Suzy didn’t quite manage on her own, but after Robby transforms into the psionically-potent Astro, Man of Space they soon closed the case – and toybox – for good. This one was all Mooney and so was the next.

‘Thunderbolt’s Secret Weapon’ was also the artist’s last hurrah with the Kid of a Thousand Capes as the incorrigible cartel tries to steal a supercomputer, only to be stopped dead by Baron Buzz-Saw, Don Juan (and his magic sword) and the imposing Sphinx-Man.

With House of Mystery #171 a radical new look emerged, as well as slightly darker tone. The writing was clearly on the wall for the exuberant, angst-free adventurer…

‘The Micro-Monsters!’ was illustrated by Frank Springer and sees Robby dial up King Viking – Super Norseman, Go-Go (a fab hipster who utilised the incredible powers of popular disco dances …and how long have I waited to type that line!!!?) and multi-powered Whirl-I-Gig to defeat bio-terrorist Doc Morhar and belligerent invaders from a sub-atomic dimension.

Springer also drew ‘The Monsters from the H-Dial’ wherein the again on-the-fritz gear turns Reed’s friend Jim into various ravening horrors every time Robby dials up.

Luckily the unnamed animated pendulum, Chief Mighty Arrow and the Human Solar Mirror our hero successively turns into prove just enough to stop the beasts until the canny boy can apply his trusty screwdriver to the incredible artefact once again.

In those distant days series ended abruptly, without fanfare and often in the middle of something… and such was the fate of Robby Reed. HoM #173, by Wood & Sal Trapani, saw the lad solve a mystery in ‘The Revolt of the H-Dial’ wherein the process reshapes him into water-breathing Gill-Man and a literal Icicle Man: beings not only unsuitable for life on Earth but also compelled to commit crimes.

Luckily by the time Robby dials into Strata Man he’s deduced what outside force is affecting his dangerously double-edged device…

And that was that. The series was gone, the market was again abandoning the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd and on the immediate horizon lay a host of war, western, barbarian and horror comics…

Exciting, fun, engaging and silly in equal amounts (heck, even I couldn’t resist a jibe or too and I genuinely revere these daft, nostalgia-soaked gems), Dial H For Hero has been re-imagined a number of time since these innocent odysseys first ran, but never with the clear-cut, unsophisticated, welcoming charm displayed here.

This is Ben-10 for your dad’s generation and your kid’s delectation: and only if they’re at just that certain age. Certainly you’re too grown up to enjoy these glorious classics. Surely you couldn’t be that lucky; could you…?
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2010 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Tiny Titans volume 2: Adventures in Awesomeness

By Art Baltazar & Franco (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2328-1

The links between animated features and comicbooks are long established and I suspect, for young consumers, indistinguishable. After all, it’s just entertainment in the end…

DC’s Cartoon Network imprint was arguably the last bastion of children’s comics in America and consolidated that link between TV and 2D fun and thrills with stunning interpretations of such television landmarks as Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, Ben 10 and others.

The kids’ comics line also produced some truly exceptional material based on TV iterations of their proprietary characters such as Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: Brave and the Bold and Krypto the Super Dog as well as material like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! which was merely similar in tone and content.

Perhaps the imprint’s finest release was a series ostensibly aimed at beginning readers but which quickly became a firm favourite of older fans and a multi-award winner too.

Superbly mirroring the magical wonderland inside a child’s head where everything is happily mixed up together, Tiny Titans became a sublime antidote to continuity cops and slavish fan-boy quibbling (erm, uh… I think you’ll find that in…) by reducing the vast cast of the Teen Titans Go! animated series, the greater boutique of the mainstream comicbooks and eventually the entire DC Universe to little kids and their parents/guardians in the wholesome kindergarten environment of Sidekick City Elementary School.

It’s a scenario spring-loaded with in-jokes, sight-gags and beloved yet gently mocked paraphernalia of generations of strip readers and screen-watchers….

Collecting issues #7-12 (spanning October 2008 – March 2009) of the magically madcap and infinitely addictive all-ages mini-masterpiece, this fourth volume begins on a romantic note with Deep in Like.

Art Baltazar and co-creator Franco (Aureliani) mastered a witty, bemusingly gentle manner of storytelling that just happily rolls along, with assorted (sort-of familiar) characters getting by, trying to make sense of the great big world.

The method generally involves stringing together smaller incidents and moments into an overall themed portmanteau tale and it works astoundingly well.

After handy and as-standard identifying roll-call page ‘Meet the… Tiny Titans’ the pint-sized tomfoolery opens with ‘Ya Think?’ with transparent-headed Psimon deliberating over his checkers game with similarly glass-fronted The Brain… until Kid Flash and Wonder Girl start heckling…

Meanwhile, at school Starfire gets a text from her dad telling her to come home. Of course, she invites all her friends and two-and-a-half days later the entire class is wandering around alien planet Tameran…

Once they get back Robin convenes a meeting of his new avian themed ‘Bird Scouts’ only to find his alternate identities causing a little contention and confusion…

The issue ends with a Franco Tiny Titans pinup preceded by a return confrontation between Psimon and his hecklers in ‘To Get to the Other Side’. Sadly, once again his tormentors get the last word…

‘Report Card Pickup!’ finds the adult Justice Leaguers confronting Principal Slade (AKA Deathstroke) and substitute teacher Trigon over the grades of the little folk whilst introducing a new intake from Sidekick City Preschool ominously dubbed the Tiny Terror Titans

Starfire gives Blue Beetle an unwanted makeover in ‘Happy Feeling Blue’ whilst Robin, Batgirl and Ace the Bat-hound get invitations to BB’s birthday party in ‘Joke’s on You’.

Elsewhere, the other Wonder Girl (the series plays extremely fast-&-loose with continuity so suck it up if you’re expecting serious logic, ok?) and tiny winged Bumblebee indulge their ‘Book Smarts’ until Beast Boy shows up even as, under the sea, Aqualad opens a meeting of ‘Pet Club, Atlantis’ until Raven and The Ant spoil things by breaking the first rule…

Concluding with a Puzzler page and a bonus Pinup, #8 gives way to a ninth issue and an inescapable predicament as the kids go ape because of ‘Monkey Magic’

When Beppo the Super-Chimp gets hold of a magic wand at Robin’s Comic Book Party the attendees are soon reduced to hirsute ancestral forms. Thankfully Batgirl and Bumblebee are meeting with the size-shifting Atom family (The Atom, Mrs. Atom, Crumb, Dot, baby Smidgen and dog Spot) and initially missing the ensuing chaos.

The bad boys of the Brotherhood of Evil aren’t so lucky when Beppo flies over and suddenly Brain and Psimon are as simian and banana-dependent as their talking-gorilla comrade M’sieu Mallah and before long Starfire and Batgirl also get monkey-zapped…

Resolute, bureaucratic Robin then institutes the first meeting of ‘the Titan Apes’ but that only provokes the pesky Super-Chimp to really see what his wand can do and even after Raven’s magic sorts everything out, Beppo rises to the challenge…

Closing with another Tiny Titans Puzzler Page and pinup of the diminutive ‘Atom’s Family’ the animal antics carry over into the next month as ‘World’s Funnest!’ finds Supergirl entertaining Batgirl at ‘Tea Time’.

Tragically the Girl of Steel has forgotten to feed her pet cat Streaky and her guest has been equally derelict in her duties to Ace, forcing the powers pets to seek redress as the little ladies set out on a global jaunt, meeting annoying monsters Kroc and Bizarro

A Tiny Titans Word Link Puzzler and Bonus Pinup of the eventually-reconciled stars wraps up the issue before the penultimate outing sees romantically declined Beast Boy in the throes of ‘Terra Trouble’.

The green Romeo’s intended inamorata is a feisty lass with refined tastes and in ‘Counting on Love Rocks’ she shows him the depth and density of her disaffection after which Robin greets visiting Russian student Star Fire and gets wrapped up in a tempestuous ‘Name Exchange’ dilemma. Terra meanwhile is not fooled by a viridian ‘Rock Dog’ and Beast Boy ends up with more bruises. Wiser, younger heads (mask, helmets, etc) just go to a carnival and leave them to it, whilst the lovesick loser escalates his campaign with a little ‘Rock Show’ whereas Aqualad and scary blob Plasmus just attend a monster movie ‘Double Feature’

Agonisingly undaunted, Beast Boy decides on a costume makeover and new origin. Dressed like Superman he builds a ‘Rocket Box’ but yet again fails to kindle a spark…

Silent mirth then illuminates ‘Tiny Titans Presents… The Kroc Files: Changing a Lightbulb’ before another TT Puzzler and a ‘Super Bonus Pin-Up! of Alfred and the Penguins’ escort us smartly to the final outing in this smart and sassy trade paperback or eBook extravaganza…

‘Faces of Mischief’ concentrates on the school staff as ‘Morning with the Trigons’ sees the substitute teacher and demonic overlord called in on short notice. It’s ‘Monday Morning’ and as the Principal and Trigon goof off to a baseball game, Slade leaves cafeteria server Darkseid in charge. This is the chance the Apokolyptian Lord of Destruction has been waiting for…

With the adult slackers listening to ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’, the kids are forced to endure exams and their ‘Finals Crisis’ seems eternal. After apparent ages, Robin needs a ‘Hall Pass’ but is soon accosted by not just the official Monitor but also the diabolical Anti-Monitor (trust me, if you’re wedded to DC Lore and minutiae, this is comedy gold: for the rest of you, it’s still hilariously drawn…)

Finally, the dread day ends for the kids, but as Raven heads home with Slade’s kids Rose and Jericho, she hears something that could ruin her life and takes drastic steps to ensure ‘Our Little Secret’, just as their dads concoct a sinister do-over for the following week…

Bringing the graphic glee to a halt is a new silent ‘Kroc Files: Sending an E-Mail’, a TT Baseball Unscramble Puzzler and a pin-up of the entire nefarious ‘Sidekick City Elementary Faculty’.

Despite being ostensibly aimed at super-juniors and TV kids, these wonderful, wacky yarns – which marvellously marry the heart and spirit of such classic strips as Peanuts and The Perishers with something uniquely mired and marinated in unadulterated nerdish comic-bookery – are unforgettable gags and japes no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, entertaining, and wickedly intoxicating to readers of any age and temperament. What more do you need to know?
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